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The paradigm of the custodian

Photo: Guy Cools

Part of the Invisible Diaries series

Week 12 / Day 7


As I expressed in my first entry, I believe that we are going through an important and necessary paradigm shift. This paradigm shift has already been happening for at least more than a decade (since the financial crisis in 2008), and it might still take a while before it will be fully completed, so we have to be patient with ourselves and with society at large. As Sarah Sigal concluded in her final entry for Invisible Diaries, “we have a long way to go, but maybe we can get there by dreaming”. I also believe, reflecting on our history, that old paradigms never completely disappear. They often remain in power in specific geopolitical situations or particular domains, where they can still do a lot of harm, clinging to their past power structures. On further reflection, during the past week I came to realise that ‘old’ and ‘new’ paradigm might be another irrelevant, binary opposition. They probably have always co-existed and now is the time the power balance shifts definitely from one to the other since the future of our whole planet depends on it.

I don’t have the necessary knowledge and competence to articulate all the aspects of this paradigm shift, but I do have an intuitive sense of what it might mean for my field, the performing arts. It has been best articulated by the Norwegian art theoretician Adam Krause in his essay, Art as Politics: The Future of Art and Community. Krause formulates his ideas, often referencing the early, American pragmatist philosophers such as John Dewey’s Art as Experience, which have been another influential source for my own thinking and practice.

This idea – that the arts should be a radically decentralized, integral part of a community, and in the hands of anyone who wants to get involved – is a central notion in the ecological version of progress. Rather than being tied to show business and the capitalist marketplace, art should be focused on becoming a part of its community. Rather than trying to ‘make it’ in the mainstream culture industry, or the world of high art, an artist’s goal should be to forge a better, stronger social order by bringing people together to collaborate and cooperate in the creation and production of their own culture.

Krause 2011, p. 85-86

Or even more compact and to the point:

Rather than seeking to climb the ladders of the cultural industry or high art, artists need to focus on providing meaningful works for the collective life of a functioning community.

Krause 2011, p. 93

Krause’s book and these quotes in particular have been a guiding principle for me since I discovered them after the previous artistic team of KVS (Royal Flemish Theatre), Brussels (including our dramaturg colleague Hildegard De Vuyst) had translated his manifesto and gave it to the audience at their farewell party.

The visual arts always seem to be ahead of the performing arts. They were the first to embrace the neo-liberal market model to the fullest, translating their ‘symbolic capital’ into sometimes exuberant cash, exploiting all the opportunities and weaknesses of the market system and literally selling the emperor’s (new) clothes. Think Damien Hirst or closer to home, Jan Fabre. But they were also the first to start a counter-movement, which has been very noticeable in the curating of the 2019 Venice Biennale, or more recently in the announcement of the intentions of the Indonesian collective ruangrupa that is curating Documenta 15 in 2022.

In the performance arts as well, the number of high-quality artistic projects that prioritise supporting the building of community over creating the next ‘trend’ in the international arts market has been exponentially growing. To name but a few from my personal circle of acquaintances: the Dutch theatre director Lotte van den Berg (mentioned in my Day 5 entry); the American choreographer Dana Caspersen, my former colleague the Flemish arts curator Barbara Raes, the Canadian choreographer and multi-media artist Tedi Tafel, the Cypriot choreographer Lia Haraki or the Flemish artist Elly Van Eeghem. It is no coincidence that they are all women. Since the paradigm shift that needs to happen is that between the model of the ‘exploiter’ of all natural and human resources to that of the ‘custodian’ of their communities and these resources.

Marc Boivin in Everyday by Tedi Tafel.

Working within this different paradigm, that is not yet the dominant one, won’t be easier or mean there will be fewer hurdles or obstacles to realising our projects, but it does mean that we will be with the ‘flow’ of the time, which will give us both more personal satisfaction and will also imply we will find the support we need. Whereas, if we stay defending the other paradigm, we will probably continue to go from crisis to crisis, which will get bigger and even more existential.

The Covid-19 crisis has closed the market, including the arts for several months, but it didn’t interrupt creative thinking and processes, and it highlighted the importance of solidarity within our own community and across communities. At least that is my experience of the past three months. Even if the present remains difficult, it leaves me rather optimistic for the long-term future.

The last thing that remains to be done is to dedicate this last entry to an influential ‘teacher’. She was the obvious first choice, so I kept her till the last: the Flemish dramaturg Marianne van Kerkhoven (1946-2013), who is the godmother of our profession, especially in the field of dance dramaturgy. There is very little worthwhile said in recent debates or publications (including my own) that wasn’t already articulated by her. She defined most of the methodological and ethical positions, which I still adhere to, in the 1980s when I was still a student or made my first professional steps as a critic.

During the 1990s, when I was curating the performing arts program of Arts Centre Vooruit in Gent, Belgium, she was the house dramaturg of Kaaitheater in Brussels. Although her thinking was pivotal in supporting and accompanying the development of these art centres, as a new model to produce and present artists, she was already warning our generation not to get conceited and to make sure we created in our turn space for future developments and generations. It is high time that the totality of van Kerkhoven’s writing should be made accessible in English to an even wider audience, but here is just another sample of her iconic, meticulous writing. She has not only been a role model as a dramaturg and an ethical lighthouse, together with John Berger, she also presents for me the ideal writer, who spent long periods with rewriting and polishing a text until its perfection:

More than ever, we need critical reflection which situates the work of today’s artists in its social and cultural contexts; more than ever the world needs nuanced opinions; awareness about the existing paradoxes and contradictions; a different perspective on reality. Artists can help us to read the world, to decipher its complexity. One of the tools available to them is the use of dramaturgy in all different forms that this can take.

Marianne Van Kerkhoven, 1999. [1]

I think these Invisible Diaries have been the proof of that diversity. Thank you for staying with me this week, and I wish you all the best for your future creative projects.



[1] "Van de kleine en grote dramaturgie" ("Of micro and macro dramaturgy"), Etcetera 68, June 1999. Republished in: Van Kerkhoven, Marianne, Van het kijken en het schrijven, Teksten over Theater (Of Watching and Writing: Texts on Theater). Leuven: Van Halewyck, 2002, pp. 197-203. Excerpt translated by Guy Cools.


Guy Cools is a Belgian dance dramaturg, currently living in Vienna. He has worked as a dance critic and dance curator. He curated from 1990 till 2002, the dance program of Arts Centre Vooruit in Ghent, Belgium. As a production dramaturg, he worked amongst others with Jean Abreu (UK), Koen Augustijnen (BE), Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (BE), Danièle Desnoyers (CA), Alexander Gottfarb (AT), Lia Haraki (CY), Akram Khan (UK), Joshua Monten (SUI), Arno Schuitemaker (NL) and Stephanie Thiersch (DE).

As a dramaturgical mentor, he has been mentoring Anghiari Dance Hub, the International Choreographer’s Week in Tilburg, the project Danse et Dramaturgie in Switzerland; the Biennale Dance College in Venice and the Atlas program of Impulstanz in Vienna. He lectures and teaches at different universities and arts colleges in Europe and Canada.

His most recent publications include The Ethics of Art: ecological turns in the performing arts, co-edited with Pascal Gielen (2014); In-between Dance Cultures: on the migratory artistic identity of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Akram Khan (2015); Imaginative Bodies, dialogues in performance practices (2016) and The Choreopolitics of Alain Platel’s les ballets C de la B, co-edited with Christel Stalpaert and Hildegard De Vuyst (2019). With the Canadian choreographer, Lin Snelling, he developed an improvised performance practice Rewriting Distance that focuses on the integration of movement, voice, and writing.

He is currently using the time-out of travelling, working at home on his next book, Performing Mourning, Laments in Contemporary Art.


Portrait photography by Pawel Wyszomirski.


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